Mrs. Johnny Sommers managed to preserve her dignity while she escorted the visitor into the front room, and even while she asked him to sit down and wait, but once she had closed the door behind her she cast dignity far away and did two steps at a time going upstairs. The result was that she, reached the room of Betty Neal entirely out of breath; two hundred pounds of fat, good-natured widowhood do not go with speed. She tossed open the door without any preliminary knock and stood there very red with a clearly defined circle of white in the center of each check. For a moment there was no sound except her panting and Betty Neal stared wildly at her from above her book.
"He's come!" gasped Mrs. Sommers.
As if this odd explanation made everything clear, Betty Neal sprang from her chair and she grew so pale that every freckle stood out.
"Him!" she echoed ungrammatically.
Then: "Where is he? Let me downstairs."
But the widow closed the door swiftly behind her and leaned her comfortable bulk against it.
"You ain't goin'," she asserted. "You ain't goin', leastways not till you got time to think it over."
"I haven't time to think. I—he—"
"That was the way with me," nodded Mrs. Sommers, and her eyes were tragic. "I went ahead and married Johnny in spite of everything, and look at me now—a widder! No, I ain't sorry for myself because I was a fool."
"Mrs. Sommers," said Betty, "will you please step out of my way?"
"Honey, for heaven's sake think a minute before you go down and face that man. He's dangerous. When I opened the door and seen him, I tell you the shivers went up my back."
"Is he thin? Is he pale?" cried Betty Neal. "How did he get away? Did he escape? Did they parole him? Did they pardon him? Did he—"
"Let me get down!" she cried.
Mrs. Sommers flung away from the door.
"Then go and marry your man-killer!"
But Betty Neal was already clattering down the stairs. Half way to the bottom her strength and courage ebbed suddenly from her; she went on with short steps, and when at last she closed the parlor door behind her, she was staring as if she looked at a ghost.
Yet Vic Gregg was not greatly changed—a little thinner perhaps, and just now he certainly did not have his usual color. The moment she appeared he jumped to his feet as if he had heard a shot, and now he stood with his feet braced a little to meet a shock, one hand twitching and playing nervously with the embroidered cloth on the table. She did not speak; merely stood with her fingers still gripping the handle of the door as if she were ready to dart away at the first alarm. A wave of pain went over the face of Vic Gregg and remained looking at her out of his eyes, for all that his single-track, concentrated mind could perceive in her was the thing he took for fear.
"Miss Neal," he said. His voice shook, straightened out again. He made her think of one of her big school boys who had forgotten his lesson and now stood cudgeling his memory and dreading that terrible nightmare of "staying after school." She had a wild desire to laugh.
"Miss Neal, I ain't here to try to take up things that can't be took up ag'in." Apparently he had prepared the speech carefully, and now he went on with more ease: "I'm leavin' these here parts for some place unknown. Before I go I jest want to say I know I was wrong from the beginnin'. All I want to say is that I was jest all sort of tied up in a knot inside and when I seen you with him—" He stopped. "I hope you marry some gent that's worth you, only they ain't any such. An'—I want to wish you good-luck, an' say good-by—"
He swept the perspiration from his forehead, and caught up his hat; he had been through the seventh circle of torture.
"Oh, Vic, dear!" cried a voice he had never heard before. Then a flurry of skirts, then arms about him, then tears and laughter, and eyes which went hungrily over his face.
"I been a houn'-dog. My God, Betty, you don't mean—"
"That I love you, Vic. I never knew what it was to love you before."
"After I been a man-killin', lyin', sneakin'—"
"Don't you say another word. Vic, it was all my fault."
"It wasn't. It was mine. But if you'd only kind of held off a little and gone easy with me."
"You didn't give me a chance."
"When I looked back from the road you wasn't standin' in the door."
"I was. And you didn't look back."
"Vic Gregg, are you trying to—"
But the anger fled from her as suddenly as it had come.
"I don't care. I'll take all the blame."
"I don't want you to. I won't let you."
She laughed hysterically.
"Vic, tell me that you're free?"
"Thank God! Oh, I've prayed and prayed—Vic, don't talk. Sit down there—so! I just want to look and look at you. There's a hollow, hungry place in me that's filling up again."
"It was Pete Glass," said Gregg brokenly. "He—he trusted me clean through when the rest was lookin' at me like I was a snake. Pete got word to the governor, an'—"
There followed a long interval of talk that meant nothing, and then, as the afternoon waned towards evening, and the evening toward dark, he told her the whole story of the long adventure. He left out nothing, not a detail that might tell against him. When he came to the moment when Glass persuaded him to go back and betray Barry he winced, but set his jaw and plunged ahead. She, too, paled when she heard that, and for a moment she had to cover her eyes, but she was older by half a life-time than she had been when he was last with her, and now she read below the surface. Besides, Vic had offered to undo what he had done, had offered to stay and fight for Barry, and surely that evened the score!
There was a light rap on the door, and then Mrs. Sommers came in with a tray.
"Maybe you young folks forgot about supper," she said. "I just thought I'd bring in a bite for you."
She placed it on the table, and then lingered, delighted, while her eyes went over them together and one by one. Perhaps Betty Neal was a fool for throwing herself away on a gun-fighter, but at least Mrs. Sommers was furnished with a story which half Alder would know by tomorrow. The walls of her house were not sound proof. Besides, Mrs. Sommers had remarkably keen ears.
"They's been a gentleman here ask for you, Vic," she said, "but I thought maybe you wouldn't like it much to be disturbed. So I told him you wasn't here."
Her smile fairly glowed with triumph.
"Thanks," said Gregg, "but who was he?"
"I never seen him before. Anyway, it didn't much matter. He wanted to see some of the rest of the boys quite bad: Pete Glass and Ronicky Joe, and Sliver Waldron, and Gus Reeve. He seemed to want to see 'em all particular bad."
"Pete Glass and Ronicky and—the posse!" murmured Vic. He grew thoughtful. "He wanted to see me, too?"
"Very particular, and he seemed kind of down-hearted when he found that Pete was out of town. Wanted to know when he might be back."
"What sort of a lookin' gent was he?" asked Vic, and his voice was sharp.
"Him? Oh, he looked like a tenderfoot to me. Terrible polite, though, and he had a voice that wasn't hardly rougher'n a girl's. Seemed like he was sort of embarrassed jest talkin' to me." She smiled at the thought, but Gregg was on his feet now, his hands on the shoulders of Mrs. Sommers as though he would try to shake information from her loose bulk.
"Look quick, now," he said. "Where did you send him?"
"How you talk! Why, where should I send him? I told him like as not Ronicky and Sliver and Gus would be down to Lorrimer's—"
The groan of Vic made her stop with a gasp.
"What did he look like?"
Mrs. Sommers was very sober. Her smile congealed.
"Black hair, and young, and good-lookin', and b-b-brown eyes, and—"
"Vic," cried Betty Neal, "what is it!" She looked around her in terror.
He turned towards the door, and then stopped, in an agony of indecision. Betty Neal was before him, blocking the way with her arms outstretched.
"Vic, you shan't go. You shan't go. You've told me yourself that he's sure death."
"God knows he is."
"You won't go, Vic?"
"But the others! Ronicky—Gus—"
She stammered in her fear.
"That's their lookout! They're three to one. Let them kill—"
"But they don't know him. They've never been close enough to see his face. Besides, no three men I—he—for God's sake tell me what to do!"
"Stay here—if you love me. I won't let you go. I won't!"
"I got to warn them."
"You'll be killed!"
He tore away her hands.
"I got to warn them—but who'll I help? Them three against Dan? He saved me—twice! But—I got. I got to go."
"If you fight for him first he'll only turn on you afterwards. Vic, stay here."
"What good's my life? What good's it if I'm a yaller dog ag'in? I'm goin' out—and be a man!"